The world of single malt scotch benefits from such a rich history, and such a wide tapestry of distilleries, that after several years of exploring the intricacies of Scottish whisky, one tends to realize that there are still so many “classic” malts you’ve yet to sample. That’s how it is for me, anyway—after expanding my interests from American into scotch whisky in 2018, I’ve spent almost two years absorbing information and trying malts of all styles. But it’s still a regular occurrence that I try something considered to be a classic of the genre for the first time—there are just so many iconic distilleries in this small country that it feels like you’ll never run out of new experiences.
This is all to say: I realize that to many of the scotch buffs out there, Oban 14 is the kind of whisky that has been comfortably in “old reliable” territory for decades. But to me, it was still a wonderfully new experience when I sampled it for the first time recently, and an indication that its status as a classic was well earned indeed.
As a distillery, Oban occupies an interesting place in Scottish whisky lore. It’s quite old (est. 1794, and operated most of the years since, with intermittent periods of dormancy), but very small, with only a handful of employees. It falls in the Highland region, but as a coastal distillery it inherits a bit of influence from both Islay and “The Islands” as scotch regions, which leads to Oban being referred to specifically as “West Highland.” That descriptor implies a certain middle ground between the richer, fruitier, balanced malts of the Highlands and the peat and smoke monsters commonly associated with Islay in particular.
So too does Oban 14-Year-Old receive a certain degree of attention for being a representative within Diageo’s Classic Malts of Scotland series, originally established back in 1988 by United Distillers and Vintners, which Diageo acquired in 1997. This series of six malts is meant to, in a general way, celebrate the five (or six) classic scotch regions, with selections from Dalwhinnie (Highland), Talisker (Isle of Skye/The Islands), Cragganmore (Speyside), Lagavulin (Islay), Glenkinchie (Lowland) and Oban representing the West Highland. The only classical region missing is Campbeltown, the once distillery-dense area that is now home to only three: Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank. Still, the fact that they felt the need to include both “Highland” and “West Highland” in the collection speaks to the fact that Oban is often considered to be a stylistic outlier.
Regardless, Oban 14 is obviously a 14-year-old single malt whisky, bottled at a respectable 43% ABV (86 proof). Let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, there’s a hint of medicinal tones to this malt, and a whiff of smoke—not like burning tires, or heavy peatiness, but a present and comforting impression of campfire. Orchard fruit, especially peach, is present, along with impressions of dark clover honey, salt and wildflowers.
On the palate, this is immediately interesting as a mix of styles, with excellent balance between a host of competing impressions. There’s more stone fruit here, but it’s darker—plummy and slightly vinous. Smoke is again moderate—I’m more sensitive to smoke than most, and didn’t think this was too pronounced by any means. Shortbread cookies and vanilla wafers make up the sweeter, biscuity malt impressions, while there’s enough of a nutty almond character to almost make you think a few sherry barrels could have been involved, although I don’t believe this malt comes anywhere near one. It’s fairly sweet overall; a rich but not overly sticky dram that is beautifully balanced between moderately intense fruit, smoke and brine.
All in all, even without having tasted this before, it seems like a classic and an old friend. And at an MSRP of around $60, I’d call that more than fairly priced within the demographic. Classic malt, indeed.
City: Oban, Scotland
Style: Single-malt scotch
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.